Vol. 8 No. 51 (Extra)
December 25, 2007

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A weekly North American transportation update

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Editor - Molly McKay
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NEWS OF THE WEEK... Special Extra Edition


George Warrington, at 55

By James P. RePass


George Warrington, the profane, combative and brilliant President of Amtrak from 1998 to 2002, whose great political skills earned him both criticism and praise, died Christmas Eve at his home in Mendham, NJ, after battling pancreatic cancer for more than eight months.

The Newark Star-Ledger reported the death this Christmas morning.

Originally a transit executive in New Jersey and Delaware, Warrington became head of Amtrak in 1998 after serving for four years as head of its Northeast Corridor business unit of the railroad, Amtrak’s most heavily used segment. Prior to Amtrak, George Warrington served as the Executive Director and President of the Delaware River Port Authority and Port Authority Transit Corporation from July 1992 to January 1994. He was the Deputy Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Transportation from November 1990 to July 1992. He was head of New Jersey Transit from 2002 until January 2007, when he stepped down for personal reasons.

Photo: NCI 

George Warrington aboard an Amtrak train in1997. At the time he was Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor President.

Warrington is survived by his wife, Hope, whom he met while at Amtrak, a son, David, of Sayreville; two stepdaughters, Brittany and Kendall of Mendham; and a brother, Marc. His marriage to Angela Warrington ended in divorce.

Warrington succeeded Thomas Downs, who was fired by the Amtrak Board of Directors when he resisted service cutbacks the Board was proposing at that time as the result of the election of a new GOP-controlled Congress, many of whose most vociferous cut-government members were virulently anti-Amtrak, despite its small budget footprint.

Warrington’s tenure at Amtrak spanned a tumultuous period in the railroad’s history in which Congressional critics of “big government” --- into which they lumped even Amtrak’s trivial subsidy, which is less each year than the cost of a single highway interchange --- were at that time in the ascendancy in the Congress and then, with the election of George Bush, in the White House as well. It also saw the electrification of the Northeast Corridors, finished in 1999, and the introduction of high speed rail on the Boston-Washington route in 2000.

Brought in to succeed Downs, Warrington responded to Congressional and White House attempts to shut down the railroad by publicly accepting and appearing to go along with the dictates of the Amtrak Reform Act of 1997, a Libertarian-GOP influenced bill that some saw as a stalking horse for the closure of the railroad. The bill and its backers demanded that Amtrak get on a “glide path to profitability” even though, as even most Congressmen knew at the time, no passenger railroad in the world makes money on its operations, just as no highway or airline can survive without taxpayer help for the underlying infrastructure, and research and development.

Warrington --- who understood that financial fact better than most --- nevertheless agreed that the railroad could be profitable, if depreciation were excluded from the accounting equation --- as it is in public transit, because accounting rules for public transit assume that equipment, track and other capital equipment will be replaced, when it wears out, by the governing body that created the transit system. Indeed, when it was formed by Congress in 1970, Amtrak was to have been given such a funding structure, but regular capital was never provided, leading to the inevitable slow deterioration of the system.

While drastically reduced operating subsidies and a virtual complete lack of capital funding, should have guaranteed the swift bankruptcy of the railroad, Warrington, without publicity, borrowed billions of dollars to keep the railroad going, including the mortgaging of Pennsylvania Station and other assets, which, along with most of the Northeast corridor right-of-way, the railroad owns.

By early 2002 the railroad was almost broke and had little left in mortgaged assets. With a hostile White House still in power and Congressional critics and the Office of Management and Budget howling over his borrowings as they came to light, Warrington accepted an offer to return to run New Jersey Transit, and left the Amtrak Presidency.

There are plenty of Warrington critics who think he nearly ruined the railroad. There are others who believe his actions saved it.

Warrington was succeeded in May of 2002 by legendary railroad and transit operator David Gunn, who immediately realized that financial catastrophe was at hand: Amtrak was perhaps two weeks away from missing payroll, and the chaos that that would have caused. Gunn, outspoken and honest to a fault, called Congress’ bluff and got an emergency appropriation approved, which, combined with superb management, and --- over the next few years, with an increasingly supportive Congress --- kept Amtrak running with bi-partisan support. Gunn, who actually did turn Amtrak around, was in turn fired by the White House in November 2005 when it attempted to push through a shut-down “break-up” scenario that would have stripped Amtrak of its assets, despite the complete loss of Congress’ support for that action, and Gunn simply refused to accede to it.

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NEWS ITEMS...  End notes...

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